Leslie Bennetts – Betty Friedan for a new generation

Two books that changed my life were recommended to me by a good friend during senior year of high school. One was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the other was The Feminine Mystique. Recently, I picked up Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake from the library, and I think it’s a life-changing book that everyone—both male and female—should read. It’s kind of an unofficial sequel to Friedan’s groundbreaking book of a similar name.

Yes, Bennetts is a self-proclaimed feminist. But she doesn’t spend most of her energy on ideological battles (she does shove a few into the last chapter of the book, which may anger some conservatives). She looks at working while having children from a pragmatic point of view. Her main point is that women who decide to quit their jobs for full-time motherhood are putting themselves (and their children) at economic risk, because they can’t anticipate the likelihood that their husbands will leave them, suddenly lose their jobs, or become extremely disabled or dead. Coupling those unfortunate possible future circumstances with the unlikelihood that someone 15 years out of the workforce will be able to find a job on par with the one she left makes it a no-brainer that simply for economic reasons, women should keep their jobs while having kids, or at least not leave the workforce for too long.

Added to that, Bennetts notes that the burden of being the sole breadwinner also adversely affects men and traps them in jobs they may not like or feel fulfilled in. More importantly, she debunks the idea that women have to “have it all” or “be perfect.” You don’t have to put 110% attention into your job and 110% attention into your children. Both men and women have various aspects of their life that need to have attention paid to—personal relationships, hobbies, achievement, community involvement, etc. And sharing work, children, and household chores ends up benefitting the whole family.

Even though Bennetts does repeat herself a lot, the book doesn’t feel as repetitive as some other one-idea books, mainly because Bennetts (who is a journalist by trade) goes so in-depth into her topic (using the full breadth of sociological studies, books, magazine articles, interviews, and personal anecdotes to flesh out her point).

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13 Comments

  1. Hmm… I’ve never heard of this before. Sounds kind of interesting I guess. But I love the huge ideological battles, lol, so I might not get into it as much as I’d anticipate before reading.

  2. I’ve placed a hold at my library. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy it. I couldn’t find the Friedan book at any of my libraries, however; I’d really like to read it!

  3. I read this with interest, principally because it resonates with my own situation. When my wife became pregnant with our first child she decided that she wanted to give up work to be a full time Mum. That did put some pressure on my to keep us economically solvent and that was at times difficult, especially in the early years. However I accepted that. Now the children are independent and have virtually left home, my wife for a variety of reasons, including health,has not been able to resume her career, or indeed start a new one. Though it is arguable that she contributes as much to society through the part time and voluntary work she does, as I do in my well paid full time career. However, while I cannot disagree with some of the practical points you quote from Leslie Bennet, the inference that my wife is somehow foolish or iresponsible for making the choice she did I do take issue with. The suggestion that all women should carry on working while taking on parental duties is, in my view, as non-sensical as Windows / OSX / Linux zealots stating that their operating system of choice is the only one worth having. It is a matter of choice and what suits your situation. Not many parents have a choice, we were fortunate in that we did and gifted with hindsight and experience on balence it has worked out well for the whole family. Who has the right to say we were wrong?

  4. I probably didn’t sum up Bennetts properly (she did write a whole book, after all, and I did only a quick summary in a couple of paragraphs).

    She isn’t passing judgment on people who choose to quit their careers. She just wants to make sure they’re making an informed choice. She thinks a lot of people (mostly women, but some men) quit their jobs to raise children without thinking about some long-term consequences or possibilities. That’s all.

    In any case, it’s easy to say now that your wife wasn’t taking a risk (or being “foolish,” as you put it) because everything turned out okay. But what if you’d suddenly become disabled or fired from your job? Hindsight always is 20/20.

  5. I am all for informed choice, you’re right hindsight is always 20/20 and I acknowledge that we were fortunate. However you cannot make all decisions in life based on all the things that might go wrong. If you did, no-one would do anything. Certainly you have to think things through and acknowledge that the whole thing might go pear shaped, but ultimately you have to take a step of faith based on what you believe is right. From the minute you are conceived to your dying day life is full of risks the vast majority of which we are not even aware of. Within the infinite possibilities that life offers there will be effectively as many scenarios where being a working Mum turn’s out to be the wrong decision as the right one. None of of know in advance.

    By the way I thought that I had better check with my wife if she had regretted her decision, after all as I said in my orginal response not all the consequences have been positive. Her reply was an unhesitating and unequivocal no.

  6. I guess I must be misrepresenting her book, then, if that’s the impression you’re getting. Her suggestions are quite practical and “pear-shaped.” She doesn’t propose any course of action that would paralyze anyone.

    There is definitely a delicate balance in life between being totally careless and being overly sheltered. I don’t think suggesting mothers keep a line to their careers or get back into the workforce sooner than within 15 years in any way impairs their ability to live or take risks. She just happens to disagree with you (and you’re entitled to your opinion as well) about what constitutes a healthy risk.

    It isn’t improbable that a full-time mother’s husband would leave her for a younger woman, suddenly lose his job, become disabled, or die before retirement. In fact, the odds are in favor of one of those incidents occurring.

  7. Just for info “going pear shaped” is an odd English expression meaning that it’s turning into a complete disaster.

    Anyway I guess we could argue this one for ages and not get anywhere, but thanks for your interest.

    By the way your Ubuntu blog was a must read for me when I started in Linux and I still come back to it.

    Regards

    Chas

  8. Didn’t know that’s what the expression meant. I guess I was trying to figure out by context. Well, thanks for being a faithful blog reader. Wishing you and your wife the best.

  9. Thank you for your review – I will try to find the book. My son and his partner have a six month old baby (my first grandson). Vicky will soon have to return to work, but I know how torn she is; Wilfred is undescribably (coin a phrase) beautiful. Head and heart tear you apart.

    Thank you for your blog, and Ubuntu, I will read it regularly.

  10. It’s certainly not a mandate that both parents work, but I think Bennetts makes a compelling case for it and really appreciates all the factors involved and complexity in such a major life decision. If Vicky is feeling conflicted about going back to work, I think the book is a must-read for her family.

    Thanks for reading my blog.

  11. I wanted to thank you for commenting on my blog, I have added this to my must-read list (the book and your blog). I don’t use Ubuntu, but your feminism posts are very articulate and a joy to read :)

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